A high-powered journalist, David Von Drehle, spoke Sunday at an educational forum at my church (Country Club Christian) and explained in a context I had not fully understood some of the ramifications of the digital age.
Von Drehle (pronounced Von Drai-ly) is a 55-year-old editor at large for Time magazine. In addition to having written scores of cover stories for Time since he joined the magazine in 2007, he has written three books, including his most recent one, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year. Before going to work for Time, he was an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post. Von Drehle and his wife, Karen Ball, also a journalist, live in Kansas City.
Von Drehle’s subject was the presidential election, and I was wondering how he was going to strike a balance, seeing as how Country Club is an old-line, traditional type of church that draws heavily from across the state line. (What am I getting at there is that the membership doesn’t look anything like The Kansas City Star newsroom; a goodly number of Country Club members probably will be voting for Donald Trump.)
As it turned out, being even handed was no problem for Von Drehle. Instead of assessing the two major candidates or trying to predict which of them would prevail in key states, he focused on how Trump has turned conventional campaigning on its head.
A key area in which Trump has vaulted ahead of Hillary Clinton — and ahead of almost all other politicians, for that matter, Von Drehle said — is disintermediation.
When Von Drehle introduced the word (wisely, he didn’t break it out until more than halfway through his talk), it left many heads in the room spinning, but he quickly explained it.
The gist of it is that in all presidential campaigns heretofore, the candidates went through intermediaries to get out their ideas and try to convince people to vote for them. Those intermediaries included the respective political parties, the candidates’ spokespersons, their consultants and pollsters, and, of course, journalists. But Trump has taken his campaign straight to the people, for the most part, thus waging a dis-intermediated campaign.
Trump planted the seeds for such a campaign on his hit TV show, The Apprentice, where viewers saw him unfiltered and felt like they got to know him. Two years ago, when he set out to attain the Republican nomination for President, he took the unfiltered approach to a higher level, using mainly his phone and his Twitter account to send his thoughts and ideas directly to millions of followers.
Von Drehle was quick to point out, however, that Trump doesn’t have a corner on disintermediation. There is an excellent local example, he said, citing the issue of whether Kansas City should build a new, single-terminal airport.
Before disintermediation, Von Drehle said, civic and political leaders — probably aided and abetted by The Kansas City Star — would have paved the way for a new airport by holding hearings, coming to a consensus and calling an election on whether to issue bonds to build a new airport.
The familiar script was followed to some extent…except that after a mayoral-appointed commission held hearings and determined a new, single terminal was the way to go, at least one City Council member, Teresa Loar, began squawking. It would be a big waste of money, she said, adding that the three-terminal facility that has served Kansas City for more than 40 years was convenient for passengers and did not need to be replaced.
By extending their electronic tentacles, like-minded people formed a wide circle around Loar’s position and effectively blunted not only the airport commission’s effort but the political push being led by Mayor Sly James. In the face of significant public opposition, James capitulated and put the onus on business leaders, saying if they wanted it, they needed to take the reins. Predictably, the initiative has languished.
The moral of that particular disintermediation story, as Von Drehle said, is this: In the disintermediation era, “no is easier than yes.” What that means is it’s easy to go online or onto Facebook and Twitter and grouse about the cost of a new, single terminal and assert that what we’ve got is adequate. And it’s much more difficult for a group of people, even influential people, to mount a strong case for a costly initiative that is vulnerable to simplistic opposition.
You probably already know how I feel about this, but here it is, for the record:
It’s a pathetic state of affairs when knee-jerking people decide they’re for or against something (or someone) on the basis of initial impressions formed and cemented in the absence of research and reflection that would cultivate a more reasoned, informed position.
And that’s where we are in regard to a badly needed new airport:
The status quo is held hostage by a bunch of people intimidated by a big price tag and grasping desperately at the notion that a new airport cannot possibly be as good as the 40-year-old one, which is as gloomy and lifeless as Donald Trump’s campaign.